A deep dive into Japanese curry
Most of my foreign friends tell me they didn’t know how much Japanese love curry until they came to Japan. Well, not only do we love it, but we actually have a very deep-rooted curry culture.
As a matter of fact, Japanese love curry so much that it is said on average we eat it at least once a week. And for school children, curry is ranked among the top-5 favorite school lunches along with ramen and other noodles.
For me, curry is definitely comfort food. When I was a kid I used to love the smell of my mom’s curry coming from the kitchen when I came home from baseball practice. It makes my mouth water just thinking about curry. Not just any curry; Japanese-style curry.
Although there is no official definition of “Japanese curry,” it’s basically milder and sweeter than typical Indian or Thai curry. It contains less spice than Indian curry, and no coconut milk like Thai curry does. Japanese curry is thickened with flour like a stew; and it’s usually served over Japanese rice.
The main ingredients in Japanese curry are potatoes, carrots, lots of onions and meat (usually chicken or pork). But you can add pretty much any vegetable you like. In Okinawa, for example, “goya,” or bitter melon, curry is very popular.
One reason curry is so popular is the innovation of curry roux blocks. Like bouillon cubes in the States, these commonly used blocks (or sometimes powders) of dehydrated concentrated roux make Japanese curry making quick and easy. They contain curry powder, flour, oils and other flavorings, and come in various levels of spiciness. There are several brands that you can find easily in grocery and convenience stores here.
Japanese are fond of paring some kind of fried food with curry. A deep-fried breaded pork cutlet (“tonkatsu”) or jumbo shrimp (“ebi furai”) are perhaps the most popular choices for “katsu curry” and “ebi furai curry,” respectivly. The crunchy fried addition goes well with the sweet savory creamy curry. We often eat it all with a side of pickled scallions (“rakkyo”) or other sliced pickled vegetables (“fukujinzuke”).
Of course, this signature Japanese dish didn’t originate in Japan.
Curry came to Japan by way of England. In the 18th century, Indian curry made its way to England while India was a British colony. In the 19th century, the British started making their own curry powder that was less spicy with added flour to give it body. In the early Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) after Japan opened its ports to foreign trade, British curry powder soon became a high-end import. Japanese liked the taste of curry so much that they started producing their own curry powder with local ingredients, according to Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Today, Japan is so simmered in curry that it is even a part of its military tradition.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has a decades-old “Curry Friday” custom in which JMSDF sailors are encouraged to eat curry on that day every week.
“There is no official record of how eating curry became a JMSDF custom,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kiminori Kusuhashi, section chief of public affairs at JMSDF Yokosuka District. “But, it is said the custom of Curry Friday was started among sailors in JMSDF when they were on duty at sea and could see nothing but horizon for days. Some sailors would lose track of what day it was, so the mess staff started serving curry every Friday to help them remember what day it was.
“Also, some people say it used to be Saturday when curry was served in the JMSDF,” Kusuhashi said. “Curry was easy to fix and allowed for quick cleanup before Sunday (the only down day of the week at one time). After they started getting two down days, Saturday and Sunday, curry day was moved to Fridays.”
Whatever the origins of Curry Friday, the custom is practiced today throughout Japan’s entire defensive navy. Every Friday, curry is served in chow halls whether at sea or on land. As a matter of fact, Japan’s naval-curry connection is so strong that Yokosuka City, Kanagawa – home to the JMSDF’s top maritime district – is famous for the dish.
This historic port city, which is also home to U.S. Yokosuka Naval base, touts itself as a kind of curry capital – and the birthplace of Yokosuka Kaigun (Navy) Curry. With support from the JMSDF, the city boasts that the recipe for its navy curry, which is sold in stores and certified restaurants, is based on the original recipe created for the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1908.
The city even has an active Yokosuka Curry Committee and a curry mascot named Sucurry to promote related exploits and events throughout the year. The biggest event is the Yokosuka Curry Festival that takes place in May at Mikasa Park. This year’s featured 89 different curries sampled by some of the more than 50,000 people that attended.
In addition to JMSDF members, U.S. Naval personnel and civilians from the nearby American base also traditionally participate in this annual event. It seems that they too are hooked on the magical taste of Japanese curry. In fact, they told us so.
This year in our Stripes Best of the Pacific magazine, readers in both mainland Japan and Okinawa voted the chain CoCo Ichiban Curry House the best in our restaurant categories – two years running in Okinawa. Japanese curry may not have enough kick for some American palates, but at CoCo Ichiban, which has countless outlets all over Japan, you can choose the level of spiciness on a scale from one to 10.
Of course, there are also and endless number of Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Thai restaurants serving their own versions of curry – often modified slightly to meet local tastes – that are just as much a part of the curry landscape in the Land of the Rising Sun.
So, what are you waiting for? Hurry to the curry.
It’s in the bag
You may have noticed the many plastic-lined pouches of curry sold in the stores throughout Japan and Okinawa. These are called retort curry.
This is very handy for a quick lunch or outdoor meal. All the ingredients are readymade inside the pouch, including the pre-made curry sauce, vegetables and meat. All you need to prepare is a bowl of cooked rice.
You just open the package, heat in the microwave or leave the still sealed package in hot water for 5 minutes. Then pour it over your rice and enjoy.
In Japan, curry flavored foods are as common as cheese, barbecue or ranch flavoring in the U.S. Here are a few to keep an eye out for the next time you’re out on the town.
Curry “pan” (bread)
Curry is wrapped in a piece of dough and deep fried or baked. You can purchase these at most bakeries, super markets and convenience stores. Freshly fried curry pan is my favorite.
Curry “udon” noodles
Curry is added to the broth of thick and chewy udon noodles. It’s like noodles in curry soup. In fact, you can find a variety of instant curry-favored cups of noodles in stores.
Curry-flavored snacks are very popular in Japan. Just like you’ll always find barbecue-, cheese- or ranch-dressing-flavored snacks on store shelves in the States, you can always find their curry-flavored counterparts here.
“Curryman” steamed buns
Curry is wrapped in Chinese-style buns and steamed like dim sum. You’ll see these, along with other flavored steamed buns, at on or near the cashier’s counter at most convenience stores. Curryman is usually the yellow one.
Soup curry is a curry soup that originated in Hokkaido. Instead of making traditional thick Japanese curry, it’s made with a thinner curry broth and bigger chunks of vegetables, since Hokkaido is famous for producing great vegetables. Over time, the dish has gradually spread throughout Japan. You’ll even find some Soup Curry restaurants in Japan’s major cities.
Japanese-style chicken curry rice
• For 5-6 people
- 7 oz of Japanese curry cubes
- 4 carrots, peeled and cut to small chunks
- 3 potato, peeled and cut to small chunks
- 2 large onion, roughly chopped and make ½ for chopped well
- 21 oz boneless chicken fillet, cut to large chunks
- 2 tbs. cooking oil
- 0.37 galon water
- Heat pot with oil. Add well- chopped onions and cook till they turned light brown.
- Place chicken pieces in the pot. Cook the chicken pieces.
- Add potato and carrot chunks and rest of onions, mix everything well.
- Add water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes with lid partially closed.
- Take the pot from the fire, add the Japanese curry cubes and stir through till dissolved. You can add any extra spice you desire at this time such as chill or cloves. I usually put extra chills to make’em hot and add little bit of soy sauce.
- Put the pot back on fire and leave for 10 minutes.
The curry always taste better on the second day because all the juice from ingredients sunk into the curry paste, which makes richer taste. It is recommended to cook enough amount to save for next day.
Easy Japanese-style dry curry
• For 4 people:
Dry curry is a different style of Japanese curry, which is also very popular. It is more like a curry-tasted chunk on the top of rice. There is also a different version of dry curry which is more like a fried rice. You can cook this within 10 minutes. It’s easy yet tasty!
- 8 oz ground beef or ground pork other ground meat
- 1 large onion, well chopped
- 1 medium carrot, well chopped
- 2 medium eggplant, well chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, well chopped
- 1 small piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 1 tbs. tomato paste
- 2 tbs. raisins
- Small amount of olive or vegetable oil
- 1-2 tbs. (or more, depending on how hot you want it) curry powder or 4 oz of Japanese curry cubes
- Salt and pepper
- 4-5 cups cooked Japanese rice
- Heat oil in a pot and brown ground beef.
- Add minced vegetables and stir fry with medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add curry powder and stir fry for another 2 minutes.
- Add the rest of the ingredients (except rice and eggs) and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes.
- Pour it over the cooked rice and add half chopped hard boiled eggs to make it pretty if you like.
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